Psittacus vasa, Shw. Synonyms: Coracopsis vasa, Gr., Scl., etc.;
Coracopsis melanoryncha, Fnsch.; Platycercus vasa, VgRs.;
Vasa obscura, SchlGl.; Vigorsia vasa, Swns.
German: Der grosse schwarze Papagei oder der grosse Vasapapagei, Rss.
French: Le grand Vasa, Lvll.
A RUSTY Crow, or a Rook, with its legs cut off, and a white crab's claw in lien of a beak, would fairly represent this by no means handsome bird; which, nevertheless, is possessed of quite a string of good qualities, among which may be reckoned hardihood, longevity, a not unmusical note, or call, great capacity for domestication, and gentleness; but on the other hand it seldom learns to speak, is decidedly not pretty, and at times will yell in a most persistent and aggravating manner; a failing, however, that is peculiar to almost every member of the great family of the Psittacidae.
The general colour of the plumage is a dull greyish black, to which the white beak forms a curious, but not a pleasing contrast. The head is rather small, and the tail somewhat long and broad in proportion to the body, which about equals in size that of a large Grey Parrot, or a Blue-fronted Amazon; although from the length of the tail it looks a larger bird than either of those we have named; which, however, both vastly surpass it in intelligence, as they also do in personal appearance.
The Zoological Society of London were presented in 1830 with a bird of this species, which survived in the Parrot House for fifty-two years; when it died apparently from old age. This individual was, after death, ascertained to be a female; but during the whole of its long life, at least in captivity, the ovary remained quiescent, no egg or eggs having been obtained from it; a fact that caused its sex to be a matter of speculation while alive.
The Vasa is found in Madagascar and some adjacent islands, where several species of the genus also exist, namely, the Lesser Vasa (Co-racopsis nigra), about half the size of the Greater Vasa, and the Praslin Island Vasa, from the Seychelles (Coracopsis Barklyi), which is smaller still. Neither of the latter species appear to be as enduring as the Great Vasa, although a Praslin has survived in the Parrot House for several years.
Concerning the large species, Herr Jšnicke writes in Dr. Russ's Foreign Cage Birds, "It is very tame, good-natured, droll, and familiar; but I have not detected the slightest talent for speech."
Dr. Russ himself, though classing it among the speaking Parrots, does not mention an instance of a talking Vasa, but says, "They whistle loudly and sweetly, pipe tunes extremely well, and learn to imitate the songs of birds; moreover they readily acquire all sorts of other sounds, such as the barking of dogs, the mewing of cats, cock-crowing, etc."
M. J. Audebert, however, says "when trained young it whistles excellently, and learns to speak pretty well; besides, it imitates the voices of all animals, and interweaves with them its own natural notes."
Our own experience of these birds agrees rather with that of the former than with that of the latter authority; whistling and the imitation of poultry, a hen after laying an egg, but not of a cock crowing, being the extent of the accomplishments of any of these birds that have come under our immediate notice; but as the natural warbling is decidedly melodious, it is extremely probable that a young male might be taught a tune, which it would doubtless render with fidelity and expression.
We have at different times seen two or three of these birds that were speckled with white, much after the fashion of a Houdan fowl; but whether this was an accidental variation, or whether these mottled birds belonged to a distinct species, we are not in a position to affirm or deny.
The Vasa Parrot has been known to ornithologists for a long time, and had its specific name imposed upon it by the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, in honour of Gustavus Vasa, the heroic Scandinavian monarch; who occupies so conspicuous a niche in the temple of fame of his own country.
In captivity these Parrots are not particularly friendly inter se, although they do not interfere with other birds; and in their wild state they are usually met with, either singly or in small family parties of from three to six; although a French traveller, Grandidier, reports having seen them in the dense forests of Madagascar, in flocks of from ten to fifty.
According to some authorities, that of A. and E. Newton, for example, these birds are indigenous to the Island of Reunion; but this, we imagine, to be an error, as there is no evidence of any connection between that Island and the principal habitat of the Vasas, Madagascar; though it is of coarse possible that Black Parrots may have been intentionally imported into the former, from the latter island, and have established themselves, as other species have done, in their new location.
Newton says in this connection: "The Black Parrot lives alone among the highest trees of Rťunion, where his dusky plumage harmonises well with his quiet, not to say melancholy, disposition; and his presence is detected by his load and shrill piping. When one of these birds has been shot, the captor in taking hold of it, must be careful, for they bite viciously."
Poor creatures I under the circumstances who can blame them ? Does not even a worm turn when it is wounded? Audebert, with whom the Black Parrot seems to have been a favourite, bears testimony as follows to its general good behaviour: - "I know few Parrots which give so much pleasure to their owners. It does not scream or gnaw, is good-tempered, allows itself to be taken in the hand and carried about without fear, and never bites"; observations that tally with our own as to the familiarity and gentleness of these birds.
Although of sufficiently common occurrence in Madagascar, where it is frequently tamed by the inhabitants, and kept as a pet, chained to a stand, the Black Parrot is not very frequently imported into Europe; for demand, as a rule, creates, and regulates, the supply of a given article, and the Vasas are not in much request among amateurs, although the few specimens that are occasionally offered fetch a good price - from thirty to forty shillings apiece in this country; and in Germany, on the authority of Dr. Russ, from forty to forty-five marks. One of the speckled birds which wo saw at Jamrach's, was offered to us for three pounds sterling; however, though said to be moulting, it was evidently a feather-eater, and wo declined it, as wo did another in better condition, for which another dealer, in whoso shop we saw it, asked the modest sum of £7; which, however, we have occasion to believe, he did not get; as we heard that he afterwards disposed of the bird for fifty shillings.
Dr. Russ, we cannot say on what authority, relates that "The aborigines (presumably of Madagascar) often tame these birds in considerable numbers, and bring them to Mauritius, whence they are imported into Europe."
Although undoubtedly belonging to different species, some authors consider the Greater and Lesser Vasas to be specifically identical; and one Herr Linden, a contemporary writer, even ventures to affirm that the Greater is the male, and the Lesser the female! which is a pare flight of fancy on his part, as the autopsy on the ancient inmate of the Parrot House at the "Zoo" indisputably proves; but, as Dr. Buss very properly remarks, "Although the resemblance between the two species is slight, yet one may confidently affirm them to be distinct."
Nothing is accurately known of the habits of the Black Parrot in its wild state. It is said that the white beak becomes a pale brown during the nesting season; but this we have not observed to be the case in captivity; which, however, is no reason that the change of colour spoken of by Dr. Finsch may not take place as described by him, especially as his observations have been confirmed by those of other writers.
The most suitable food for these birds is maize, to which hemp and oats may be added; though they appear to bo capable of subsisting upon the most unlikely and unnatural diet, for M. J. Audebert (Russ passim) says, "Mine got roast or boiled meat, broth, fish, vegetables, raw and cooked rice, bananas, sugar-cane, etc., without any evil consequences. Raw flesh they will not touch." In another place he adds, "They kept at a distance, anxiously, from any object with which they were not acquainted, such as glasses, bottles, etc., and never gnawed tables or chairs. The price in Madagascar ranges from fivepence to one shilling a head."
Avoiding unknown objects, which M. Audebert appears to think a sign of intelligence, tends, we imagine, to prove on the contrary that the Vasa is not entitled to rank with the more sagacious members of its family; and that this is really the case, the general tenour of our observations with respect to it leads us to believe. The Black Parrot is by nature suspicious, but speedily becomes reconciled to captivity. It is, however, incapable of generalization, and if accustomed to a particular object, starts in affright from another that differs from it in the very slightest respect. It spends the greater part of its time asleep, that is to say when not eating; and it is only when made the subject of continual attention by its owner that it rouses itself from the state of melancholy that appears to be natural to it, and puts on a kind of spurious gaiety, which vanishes directly the attention is withdrawn; when the bird becomes as listless and apathetic as before.
That this behaviour is not the result of grief for the loss of its freedom is quite certain; for one of the Vasas to which we allude was permitted to enjoy almost complete liberty, and differed in no wise from the others as regards the melancholic apathy that seems to bo the heritage of the race; which even in the completely wild state, has not been observed to play like most other members of the Parrot family.
That many birds are by nature utterly unfitted for a life in captivity, must be apparent to any one who has even bestowed a passing thought upon the subject; the Lark, for instance, accustomed to soar aloft and revel in the boundless realms of space; or the Eagle, whose home is likewise in mid-air, and his resting place on some inaccessible cliff; but with others of the feathered tribes it is different. Some of them actually seek the society of man and assume, voluntarily, restraints that are dearer to them than the most perfect liberty; of these are the Pigeon and the Robin Redbreast. But intermediate between the two extremes are others that without seeking, yet submit, if not with pleasure, at least with perfect resignation, to a life of captivity, and refuse to return to a state of nature, when the opportunity for so doing is presented to them; of these, among others, are many of the Parrots.
One of these birds that came into our possession several years since, was as wild and vicious as a Hawk, snapping and biting fiercely at every one who came near it, trying to cut the bars of its cage, and every now and then giving utterance to the most appalling yells. The lady from whose custody it had passed into our own, was well versed in the management of Parrots, and had succeeded in perfectly taming several that at first seemed as intractable as the bird of which we are speaking; but upon this savage she could make no impression, and so she got rid of it, and it came into our keeping. When, finding it apparently irreclaimable, wo turned it out into an aviary in which was located another of the same species, scarcely less vicious than this very objectionable member of the Parrot race.
The rencontre between the two was alarming and yet amusing. A battle royal took place, and feathers were scattered all about; blood was even drawn, and the combatants fought until they were both of them utterly exhausted. Neither could claim the victory, and each stood in very proper dread of the other ever after; so that an armistice was in all probability agreed to between them; and afterwards they became tolerable friends, though every now and then a sly bite from one or the other, a shriek from, and hasty retreat of, the bitten one to the farthest corner of the aviary; plainly showed that not much love was lost between them.
This went on for a couple of years, when one of the pair one morning or evening caught its foot in the wire of the aviary, and tugging to get free, unfortunately broke its leg; and retreating to a corner of the outside, or open part of the enclosure, was unable or unwilling to move, and stayed there unnoticed until, on going to feed them in the morning, we found the poor Parrot dead and cold.
Though by no means an engaging creature, we felt very grieved for its untimely and cruel ending, for the birds were undoubtedly a pair; and we had hoped that during the coming summer (1887) we might have had eggs, and perhaps young ones, from them.
The survivor did not get tamer, and did not seem to mourn very much for the loss of his companion; but having another use for his habitation, we caught the savage, caged him and brought him indoors, when, strange to relate, without any special attention on our part, he soon got to be quite tame; taking food from the hand, and even suffering his head to be scratched. Experience had evidently made him wiser; he could appreciate the contrast between his spacious cage indoors and his life of semi-freedom in an out-door aviary; between the society of a mate who, even when accepting his caresses, was always on the watch for an opportunity of giving him a bite; and the gentleness of the hand that fed him and kept his house in order; and, as we have said, he soon became quite tame, and is now a very amiable and companionable bird, in perfect plumage and condition.
We have also remarked at various times that other Parrots, when turned out into a large aviary, were evidently quite unhappy there, and evinced unmistakable signs of delight when restored to the narrower precincts of the accustomed cage.
A tame Parrot is a most delightful bird, and few birds become tamer than a Parrot.
Mr. Groom, of Camden Town, writes concerning a Vasa Parrot, in his possession for some time, that was exhibited at the twenty-fourth Annual Exhibition of Canaries and Cage-Birds at the Crystal Palace, February, 1887:-"When first caged my Black Parrot was dreadfully wild and shy, but has gradually become more quiet, and will now hold its head to be fondled, and appears in no way spiteful, although still timid, but gentle. My opinion of these birds is that they would become very affectionate, if pains were taken with them. As to talking, I can hardly form an opinion, yet think they might be induced to speak, if trained and petted early."
At the Palace Show this bird was evidently unwell, but made no attempt to retaliate upon the numerous persons who poked him with sticks and umbrellas; merely resenting their rudeness by a little grunt, and immediately popping his head under his wing until disturbed again.
Mr. J. E. Blackman, of Chatham, who has kept almost every kind of Parrot and Parrakeet that is imported into this country, writes as follows concerning the species at present under consideration: - "I have a fine specimen of the larger Vasa. He is nothing to look upon; the first impression being generally, 'how like a squeaker.'
"He is not noisy, and says several words plainly, Dr. Ross notwithstanding. When I go to feed him be utters a very faint plaintive cry, much like a child in cunabul‚, and a very young one indeed. Ho is extremely playful, and very fond of a shampooing. I am much amused at his attempts to wash in his drinking tin; he succeeds in making himself very wet, as well as his surroundings. He is fond of having his head scratched."
The above graphic account of a fine specimen of the species to which it belongs, shows that even the Black Parrots vary in character, and that some of them are more teachable and of a gayer and more lively disposition than others; but on the whole it tallies very well with what we have written about the bird, whether from our own or the observations of others.
To sum up, we may briefly remark that in our opinion the larger Vasa is a capital bird to make a pet of; for it is docile, hardy, and not usually noisy; qualities that should render it more acceptable to amateurs than it appears to be, and which should go far to compensate in their eyes for any lack of the brilliant colouring so characteristic of the Parrot family; for, as the proverb to which we have more than once in these pages referred, truly says, "Handsome is that handsome does."
We may here mention that in addition to the Lesser Vasa and the Praslin Parrot, there are several other less known species of Black Parrots, which each and all bear more or less affinity to the subject of the present notice; which they resemble so closely, except in point of size, that it is unnecessary to figure them in this work; though a few words upon their suitability for domestic life may not be unacceptable to our readers.
The Lesser Vasa Parrot, also called the Brown and the Ash-brown Parrot, is about fourteen inches in length, and is a native of Madagascar, where it consorts with the larger species, as the Jackdaws are in the habit of doing with the Rooks in our own fields.
It is Psittacus niger of Edwards, and Madagascariensis niger of Brisson, Le Petit Vasa of Le Vaillant, and Der kleine schwarze Papagei of the Germans. It is equally enduring with its larger relative, and, like it, whistles and pipes, but speaks little, though it imitates fairly well the cries of different animals and various domestic sounds. The treatment is the same that has been recommended for the Large Vasa.
Four specimens of the Lesser Vasa (Coracopsis nigra, Z. S.) have at various times been placed in the Parrot House at the "Zoo", of which the first arrived in 1857, and the last in 1872.
Barkly's Parrot (Psittacus Barklyi), named in honour of Sir Henry Barkly, at one time Governor of Victoria, and subsequently of the Mauritius, is still smaller than the Lesser Vasa, measuring about eleven inches in extreme length. It is an insignificant-looking, gentle little creature; of an ashy black colour, with a greyish white beak. It is only found on Praslin Island, one of the Seychelles, and is not very numerous there; so that at no very distant date it will in all probability become extinct. Four examples have at different times been placed in the Parrot House of the Zoological Society of London, of which the first was received in 1867, and the last in 1874; and this bird is, or was quite recently, living in the Gardens.
In addition to the two Vasas, and the Praslin Parrot, there is a fourth black member of the Parrot family, viz.: Psittacus comorensis, Fnsch., or Coracopsis comorensis, Gr., found in the Comorine group of islands by Dr. Kirk. It is, however, even more scarce than the Praslin, and no example of the species has at any time been an inhabitant of the Zoological Gardens of London.
It is stated, on the authority of Dr. Bolau, to have reached the Hamburgh Zoological Gardens to the number of three, which were received at the same time, but none since. It is somewhat smaller than the Great Vasa, to which it bears a general resemblance, except its black feathers reflect a tinge of metallic green, principally on the wings, back, and tail. The beak is blackish brown, the eyes very dark, and the feet dark brown; the cry is weak and not disagreeable.
A skin of the bird was seen by Dr. Finsch in the British Museum a few years since, but it is not there now.
The rarity of the latter two species renders their price uncertain. A dealer into whose possession one of them might come, would be apt to ask for it whatever sum he thought he would be likely to get; but the Lesser Vasas, of which we saw a goodly number in a London shop a couple of years since, were sold at from eighteen shillings to twenty-five shillings apiece; although we believe the first price that was demanded was sixty shillings a head, at which figure we do not think a single bird was sold.
They would all appear to bo hardy, and, if not attractive-looking, very desirable birds to make pets of, for they are gentle, the Praslin especially; and have not the loud, disagreeable scream of so many of their congeners. When they do shriek it is in quite a minor key, compared with the Cockatoos and the Amazons.
The Lesser Vasa has laid eggs in confinement, but has not, as far as we are aware, reproduced itself in the aviary.
The Great Vasa is about twenty-one or twenty-two inches in length.